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Penguins Making Penguins right away would be large leap

Sunday, June 29, 2003

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

SOREL-TRACY, Quebec -- At nearly every level of hockey Marc-Andre Fleury has played, he has been the youngest on his team.

He hopes the same will be true next season and that he can immediately join the Penguins, the team that made him the top pick in the NHL Entry Draft last weekend. But he is aware of how unlikely that scenario is for an 18-year-old.

"I know it will not be easy," Fleury said. "I have a chance, and all I can do is go there and play my best. Maybe I can make it a tough decision for them not to keep me."

 
 
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18 and ready?

   
 

If Fleury fails to make the cut at training camp in September, the Penguins are obligated to return him to his Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. He cannot play in the minor professional leagues as long as he has junior eligibility in Canada, and he has one more year.

If Fleury makes it in Pittsburgh, he will join elite company. Since 1980, only four goaltenders -- Grant Fuhr (1981), Tom Barrasso (1983), Jocelyn Thibault (1993) and Dan Blackburn (2001) -- have played 10 or more NHL games in the season following their draft.

Still, the Penguins are not ruling it out. Although there is a faction of management opposed to Fleury playing in Pittsburgh immediately, the man in charge of hockey operations suggested strongly that a good showing at training camp is all it will take.

"We'll see in September how it goes," General Manager Craig Patrick said. "That's where we'll make our decision."

That declaration was surprising because of precedent not only around the league but also within the organization. Since Patrick took his post in 1989, the Penguins have allowed only three draftees to play right away: Jaromir Jagr (1990), Martin Straka (1992) and Robert Dome (1997).

All those players are forwards, though, and that position is the easiest to learn at the NHL level, followed by defense. Goaltending is the most difficult, which is why opinions are varied on where Fleury should be next season.

Scouts and executives from other NHL teams speak so highly of Fleury's talent and mental composure that they see no reason he could not step in right away. Patrick has acknowledged hearing some of that talk from officials whose opinion he respects, inside the Penguins' organization and outside of it.

Among those is his longtime assistant, Ed Johnston, a former goaltender.

"Sure, he can do it," Johnston said. "If he comes in and does what everybody thinks he's capable of doing ... we'll wait and see. He could come in and shoot the lights out."

One who is firmly opposed is Pascal Vincent, Fleury's coach in Cape Breton. He and other observers expect his team to be among the league's best next season, and he believes Fleury would benefit from another year of dominating the junior level.

"Having that feeling that you can go all the way, the feeling of carrying a team could serve him well in Pittsburgh," Vincent said. "I'm not going to tell the Penguins what to do, but I think it would help to keep his confidence at a high level. You look at history, and it shows you goalies don't play right away. There's a reason for that."

The Penguins have overhauled their roster in the past year to focus on youth and could struggle defensively next season, which is another area of concern. They were outshot by opponents in 59 of 82 games last season.

Johan Hedberg, the team's starter most of the past three years, advised caution regarding playing Fleury at 18.

"If he is an extreme talent, it could happen. The key is if he is strong enough mentally to handle it," Hedberg said. "But it's dangerous to be exposed at a young age, and I wouldn't want to see him go through what Blackburn went through in New York. The way they play, he was asked to do too much."

Blackburn regularly faced 35 or more shots per game playing behind the Rangers' porous defense in 2001-02.

Another issue is sure to be finances.

Under the NHL's salary cap for rookies, a first-round pick in the most recent draft cannot top $1.124 million in salary and bonuses for each of the mandatory three years of the deal. But performance incentives given out to high picks can top $12 million over that span. The Penguins, who have been slashing payroll, might be better suited to take on such a contract in 2004. That is the year the NHL's collective bargaining agreement with its players expires, and some form of salary control or revenue sharing is expected.

A work stoppage that year could be problematic for Fleury, too.

It is not known if players who spend next season in the NHL will be permitted to play in the minor leagues the following season in the event of an NHL work stoppage. That could leave Fleury with no place to play -- he would be out of junior eligibility -- and stunt his development. Gary Meagher, the NHL's vice president of public relations, said the matter has not been decided. The NHL Players Association declined comment.


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1938.

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